In my last article I discussed the idea of westernisation in our diets. Undoubtedly, the USA can claim fame for having developed the consumer market with the much acclaimed “grab-n-go” concept, which certainly has traction locally. Interestingly, crime and the “gimme-gimme” attitude seem to be linked. I could also link this fast food and convenience phenomena to fast lives, the “less work- more cash” paradigm and the spiralling hastiness and intolerance in our society. While I’ve started to spread the idea of food sovereignty in my conversations, Barbados has made a definitive and brave move, ahead of its Caricom counterparts, which must be commended. In a recent statement by Barbados’ Minister of Agriculture, Dr Estwick categorically said, “…rest assured and as long as I am Minister of Agriculture, I am going to Cabinet and those crops will not be imported into Barbados as long as we can produce them.” While at home we have in fact started to grow crops that were traditionally imported, namely onion and carrots, there needs to be a clear decision by way of policy in adopting this approach. The National Food Production Action Plan has its benefits, but a strong policy position is needed to trigger any significant effort towards reducing our food import bill, or moreso, cutting it in half to $2 billion by 2015.
There is an abundance of resources focused on harnessing our export potential, however, equivalent importance is not placed on addressing the import dependency that exists in Trinidad and Tobago today. Essentially, one would not outweigh the other if we do not eat what we grow. Explicit policy and strategies ought to be developed to promote import substitution industrialisation or taking a policy position on local content requirements. Despite the clear benefits to the domestic economy and citizen health and welfare of consuming locally produced food, the World Trade Organisation and other multilateral trade leaders promote trade liberalisation. There is a universal understanding that a liberalised framework will create a deleterious environment for uncompetitive entities, unless of course if guided and strategic planning is done. One solution proposed to counter the erosion of preferential market access is to pursue new market opportunities with carefully selected regional partners. This process of selection must be detailed from the outset. The decision to be guided by geographical location, socio-economic studies, political affiliation or market-related data must be noted. Ambiguity at this stage would not fully create an effective policy in this regard.
The first point of reference, according to the Treaty of Chaguaramas, is that Caricom partners should seek to import from regional partners. We are open for business, however, we need to focus on capacity building and institutional strengthening in the sector. This would definitely build our response to pending surges in domestic and export demand. Government, through agencies such as the Agricultural Development Bank and the EXIM Bank, has been trying to promote domestic production and export in the agricultural sector, inclusive of fisheries. A recent ruling by the Caribbean Court rejected Jamaica’s request to import rice from the USA instead of first seeking to import rice from other Caricom members. This ruling should serve as an incentive and signal to T&T that there is commodity demand in the region that justifies investment locally. What, then, is the real role of youth in agriculture? Persons who have no capital and land but possess the academic, entrepreneurial and technological skill to effectively create a new culture of agriculture in T&T. There’s a furore that started recently between government and the Central Bank on its reporting. It’s interesting that the Central Bank report was countered with the indication that food carries too heavy a weighting in the calculation of headline inflation. As a consumer, regardless of inflation rates, food prices is the most real measure, we face it daily. It was Agriculture Minister Vasant Bharath himself who made a more erudite declaration in July 2011, “eat local to combat inflation!”
Inflation had dropped, supported by the Central Bank, presumably due to more food in the system and because the cost of food had decreased. Do we have any functional monitoring and evaluation agencies or market information systems in place? Have we employed or used technical advisers and persons with performance-based visions for the sector appropriately? The burning question which will be asked is no short of, what has changed in the last year to cause a turn of events? From where I sit, a possible solution as I alluded to is to invest in the first instance in capacity building and institutional strengthening. The closure of Caroni (1975) Ltd and other related agencies, alongside the need for housing has significantly impacted the availability of arable lands, especially lands which had roads, drainage and other infrastructure in place to support agriculture. A planned approach in this manner would secure a place for tertiary level graduates in the field of agriculture as well as fulfil the “land for the landless” promises. Proper land use policy must take precedence over ad hoc arrangements which seek to hold the State to ransom. The underlying notion is that supply will create its own demand. Excess supply on the domestic market will lower prices and bring increased varieties in products and methods of production from producers, inclusive of farmers and investors, seeking to diversify and gain a competitive advantage. This thinking will see the re-emergence of local fruits and the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, including green-house farming, organic methods and other futuristic technological strategies. While not explicitly banning imports, a focused domestic supply-side approach will eventually create a change of tastes and preferences towards domestically produced foods.
Our approach, especially Government’s approach, moving forward is important. Are we willing and able to take the bull by the horns? Is it that we want demand to continue creating supply? This has led to the current situation of higher incomes leading us to align our tastes and preferences to imported food and inflation. Indian Arrival Day stories of indentured labourers are fresh in our minds, agriculture is arguably the oldest productive sector in T&T, yet it seems to be the youngest in managerial dynamism. It was indeed a sad day for the local industry when one farmer claimed that we do not have sufficient local produce to keep the Norris Deonarine Northern Wholesale Market open all week. So where do we look, as a sector, to benchmark capacity building? The Ministry of Transport has publicly announced strategies through PTSC in doing its part towards environmental protection and reducing the carbon footprint of the transport sector through diesel-to-CNG conversions of its fleet as well as the procurement of a fleet of dedicated CNG buses. While improving on the quality of outputs, the ministry has delivered on its budget statement promises and considers equitable access at all times, be it through geographical location with expanded routes and other demographics such as age, gender and the disabled. I’ve also had the privilege to visit the Trinidad and Tobago Civil Aviation Authority. A state-of-the-art facility with futuristic managerial and technological assets that is unmatched in the region and much of the wider world. The authority facilitates school tours of its area control centre, tower and other departments. The facility also boasts of significant spare capacity in the event of disaster or maintenance shut-down. It may well be that we could look to the transport sector as an example of dynamism and futuristic planning, instead of knocking Senator Maharaj and masking the real progress our country is making in its development strides as a 50-year-old.
In a live discussion on a daily talk-show this week, one obvious and important comment was the price of food in Tobago and in the city areas of Trinidad. I suspect the time is right to introduce the idea of vertical farming as a sign of dynamism and futuristic thinking. The concept is easy to grasp, a multi-storey construction of greenhouses located inside the urban landscape, close to where most of us have chosen to work and live. It also addresses much of the conventional problems associated with farming, including year-round farming regardless of weather, realistic financial budgeting since crop losses due to transportation, storage and other issues will be reduced. Also, creation of reliable sources of food adds to national security, domestic job creation and reduces the challenge of land access and availability by growing up instead of out. Also, vertical farms would employ hydroponic and aeroponic technologies and would not require use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. They would also use a lot less water than traditional agriculture and this water could be recycled for use within the farm. There is also the benefit of reduced food miles as the distance from farm to fork is decimated. In considering capacity developments in the transport sector, likened to the discussion, increasing the availability of arable lands, creating a new generation of agriculturalists, increasing domestic food production and security, green-house farming, agro-tourism and other forms of revenue through substantive improvements in agricultural capacity must be developed. New dynamism, strategies and projects must be brought into action. This would ensure that we swallow our pride and taste success by going local. In reference to my opening statement, I would definitely like to consume meals that are lean, efficiently produced and filled with natural energy.
Omardath Maharaj holds a BSc Economics and Finance and an MSc Agricultural Economics.